Back to Top

c. 1959

Cue the chariots! The making of Ben-Hur

Filming a production of Biblical proportions

Rome, Italy, 1958. Charlton Heston at Cinecitta during the making of the film 'Ben Hur'. Finishing touches to his ancient-Roman costume (Photo by Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images)

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur—a remake of the 1925 film of the 1880 novel—was, like the sweep of its story, a production of Biblical proportions.

Not only did it boast the biggest budget and largest sets of any film ever made to date, it also required the contribution of more than 200 camels, 2,500 horses, 365 speaking actors and a cast of 10,000.

Shooting occupied more than 12 hours a day, six days a week for eight months—with another six months of post-production work. So demanding was the filming that MGM employed a general practitioner to administer Vitamin B injections on demand to anyone on set.

More than a million props were employed on 300 sets and locations, and 18,000 sketches of clothing became 100,000 final costumes, sewn by a team of 100. Stone friezes and statues were carved but 200 sculptors, and blacksmiths hammered out 1,000 suits of armour.

A valid email is required

Charlton Heston’s role as Judah Ben-Hur was originally earmarked for Marlon Brando, and had been offered to, amongst others, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Kurt Douglas and Lesley Nielsen.

In total, well over a million feet of film was shot.  In editing, this was reduced to just under 20,000 feet—just under 2% of the total footage—and yet Ben-Hur was still the third longest film ever made, after Gone with the Wind and The Ten Commandments.

And the scale didn’t stop when the footage was complete. With a marketing spend of almost $15 million, it became the fastest and highest grossing film of the year, second only to Gone With the Wind as the highest of all time. At the Acaadmy Awards, it won 11 Oscars.

Ben-Hur was a smash hit in all respects, including with almost every critic.  Almost. Dwight Macdonald wrote: “I felt like a motorist trapped at a railroad crossing while a long freight train slowly trundles by.”


John Bryson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Getty Images
see more from
More